WASHINGTON — A coalition of energy companies, environmentalists and Pennsylvania philanthropies have created a new center that would provide more stringent standards for fracking of natural gas in parts of the eastern United States.
The new Center for Sustainable Shale Development, the first of its kind in the U.S., seeks to set high operational standards for companies in the Marcellus Shale formation to boost water, air quality and climate protections, the coalition announced Wednesday.
Independent auditors would certify that companies seeking the center's seal of approval meet the center's standards.
The Marcellus Shale, which extends from central New York to eastern Kentucky, is the site of a vast gas boom, most of it centered in Pennsylvania. But the production method of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that has tapped the gas deposits and created jobs and revenue has sparked concerns about the impact of wide-scale industrial development on air and water quality.
Submitting to the standards is voluntary, and environmentalists underscored that the center is not a substitute for more rigorous state and legal standards. Rather, it would show that better methods for gas development are technologically and financially feasible, they said.
"While shale development has been controversial, everyone agrees that when it's done, producers must minimize environmental risk," said Conrad G. Schneider, Advocacy Director for the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston environmental group that helped found the center.
Schneider said his organization would continue to demand more stringent regulations. "But, in the meantime, we support efforts such as CSSD to raise the bar and demonstrate that more protective standards are achievable."
The center, founded by partners often at loggerheads with one another, has 15 standards on the books so far. Its members see that as the start of a more sweeping and uniform improvement of gas production practices, possibly expanding into other shale gas areas such as the Monterey Shale in California.
The center will be based in Pittsburgh and have a budget of about $800,000 for the remainder of 2013, which will be funded equally by industry and philanthropies.
The founding energy companies are Shell, Chevron, CONSOL Energy and EQT Corp. Environmental backers include the Clean Air Task Force, the Environmental Defense Fund, Group Against Smog and Pollution, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. The Heinz Endowments and the William Penn Foundation are the participating philanthropies.
The center, which was developed over two years of sometimes contentious negotiations, hopes to address the widespread health and environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by holding companies to standards that exceed federal and state rules.
For instance, federal law currently permits companies to use diesel fuel as part of the fracking fluid they inject deep underground to break open shale formations and unlock the gas. The standards would require that companies certified by the center would not use diesel and would demand more detailed disclosure of other substances than called for in many states.
The center also would push companies to conform to new federal emissions standards at wellheads faster than established by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"These ideas didn't come from left field," said Andrew Place, the center's interim executive director. "You look at the suite of good ideas out there in industry, federal agencies and the states and you adopt" the best of them.
The application process for certification should be in place by the third quarter this year, and the first companies certified by the end of the year. A company can choose to get certified in one sphere, such as water resources, for instance. But it must be certified in the remaining two areas within two years or lose its accredited status.
The goal is for companies and the public to see certification as essential to producing gas in the Marcellus, the founders said.
"The mayor will ask, Are you certified? The county commissioner will ask, Are you certified? The landowner, are you certified," said Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for the U.S. Energy and Climate Program at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"This begins to set a benchmark to hold companies accountable for the rhetoric they often espouse that they are responsible developers. It becomes a way to demonstrate that you are in fact a responsible developer."